“It’s handy when your wife is Courtney Barnett,” acknowledged Melbourne DIY stalwart Jen Cloher when congratulated on her latest album being played by NPR tastemaker, Bob Boilen. However, back home in Australia, Cloher is a respected musician in her own right. Her 2013 album In Blood Memory was nominated for the prestigious Australian Music Prize, she is the label boss of Milk! Records which she co-founded with Barnett, and is a fierce advocate for artist's rights. Yet, when a relatively unknown Barnett whose music hadn’t even cracked the Australian 100 blew up in the U.S., going on to win a Grammy in 2015, Cloher found herself conflicted with feelings of being the one left behind. Her career eclipsed.
Jen Cloher, her self-titled fourth album deals with these insecurities; warts and all, with a direct honesty that is unflinching. She also takes jabs at the music industry and its pitfalls, and for the first time gets very political; as tends to happen when the political agenda of the day comes to bear on the most scared aspect of private lives: who you can love and have a family with. The couple aren't legally married but wear wedding bands.
Currently the opening act for Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice album tour, we spoke to Cloher last week in San Francisco, ahead of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The festival kicked off their North American tour which brings them back to the Bay Area on Oct. 18, for their show at the Fox Theatre. We found a cheerful Cloher but she did reveal some incredible low points where she had questioned her now six-year relationship with Barnett.
AXS: You’ve written a wonderful album for us to use as a starting point – be it that connection with Patti Smith, to go down the rabbit hole of the Dirty Three, or to discover the nuances of Aussie music and culture as it stands today – when you were writing, did it feel as far reaching in its scope?
Jen Cloher: No. It’s funny, I wrote the album over a few years and I think that’s probably why it’s quite dense and rich. It covers a lot of territory but as you pointed out, it all revolves around music – either being a musician, being married to a musician, my love of other musicians and that struggle that other Australian artists go through in wanting to get out and play to a bigger audience, which is kind of why you haven’t heard of me, until now, four albums into a career. (laughs) The thing I wanted to achieve with this record was to have a really direct and honest conversation about the things I care about.
AXS: It’s more political than anything you’ve done before especially on the song "Analysis Paralysis" where you sing "I’m paralyzed/ In paradise/ While the Hansonites/ Take a plebiscite/ To decide/ If I can have a wife."
JC: It’s an interesting time to be alive on this planet. There is so much going on; everywhere there’s been this rise in regressive right wing politics. I wrote “Analysis Paralysis” a good 18 months ago. I wanted to talk about that dilemma, living in this fast-moving world, nature and the environment are more and more at our mercy. How do you reconcile that as an intelligent, empathetic human being? Then I wandered into a discussion about marriage equality - it’s a long song at 8 minutes – and it’s interesting as in Australia now, we’ve got this this non-binding, opinion poll on marriage equality. But even if the majority votes ‘yes’ it doesn’t change the law.
AXS: Oh I thought it was more like a referendum?
JC: No, it’s a plebiscite.
AXS: Hence, the lyrics in the song.
JC: Yes, that’s how it’s different from a referendum. It’s not legally binding. It’s a public opinion survey on marriage equality that is costing A$122million in taxpayers money. And is going to put a lot of innocent children from same-sex couples in a very precarious and damaging psychological space.
AXS: So my next question was that if it was a “yes” on marriage equality, will you be going to the chapel and getting married? But you can’t, you still have to wait.
JC: No. We can’t. We have to wait and see if it is then passed as a legal act. But I probably am not going to run to the chapel and get married anyway, for me it’s not really about my deep desire to be married; it’s not something I’ve dreamt my whole life about being married in church and wearing a really nice dress. It’s a civil rights issue for me. We live in a time where we know better: Everyone has the right to love who they want to. And they should have the same legal rights. If I am paying the same taxes and fines just like everyone else, so the same rights should be afforded to me like every other citizen.
AXS: “Sensory Memory” and “Dark Art” are intimate love songs. The poeticism and lyrical play with “Sensory Memory” is particularly beautiful. When you were writing, did these songs just flow or was it about setting the time to sit down, write, then craft them?
JC: It’s definitely sitting down everyday. Spending time and seeing what appears on the page or when I’m playing guitar. And it’s hard work. The thing I’ve discovered as a songwriter is, as you go along in your career in the beginning there’s a lot of excitement and you’re very emotional, it comes pouring out of you. But as you get older, you live a bigger life, it’s really about sitting down and writing. The hardest thing is to discover what the song’s about? And “Sensory Memory” is a funny song – it was just me sitting there in my house – so I thought, "why don’t you just write a song about a day in your life?" And what I was feeling? I was really missing Courtney, and wondering if I was going to make it through - it was a good three years of her being away a lot – it’s hard to maintain a connection when you’re not together. So those two songs are about me, navigating my way emotionally through a strange situation: where the very thing I love – music - has taken away the person that I love.
AXS: What does the line about not going to be “Joy to her Slim Dusty” mean?
JC: Slim Dusty’s wife, Joy is quite a famous Australian figure, obviously not as well known as Slim Dusty because her name wasn’t on all the records. But she wrote a lot of his songs, managed his career and brought up their children, literally on the road – they drove around Australia in a caravan playing in country halls and RSLs. I guess I’m just acknowledging that I’m not going to be that person for Courtney. (laughs) I value being at home. I like being around my friends. I don’t want to be her personal assistant; that was pretty much what Joy was to Slim. That was my nod though, a nod of admiration to Joy.
AXS: Another favorite is “The other side to love's joy is shadow.” Though you don’t want to languish there, it certainly helps to be on the other side but you also hint that, perhaps you’re not usually the person on the receiving end.
JC: Absolutely. I’m a really big fan of an American Buddhist nun called Pema Chodron. She says: "To lead a full life, you have to feel everything. We have to feel the shadow, loss, sorrow, life is as much about suffering as it is joy … or else you are hollow." You come across people like that who aren’t willing to feel that depth, they have missed out.
AXS: Sometimes I wonder where you end and Courtney begins – some songs are almost the flip side of the same coin ("Depreston" and "Regional Echo" both deal with aspects of suburban life) – and you share a work and home life. How do you observe those necessary boundaries?
JC: We don’t comment on each other’s work unless one of us has asked for it. Our writing and creative processes are very separate. Courtney plays in my band and has for over six years, so when I have the songs written, I take them into the studio, that’s when she gets to bring her amazing guitar skills to play. It’s really fun to have another creative person in the house. You’re constantly inspired. We are also very different people – she writes differently to me, stylistically our music is very different too but we complement each other well.
AXS: Did you ever think that Courtney would get as big as she has? How long before you had these insecure feelings and what jolted you back into just getting on with your life?
JC: I don’t think Australians think big stuff’s going to happen to them. It’s very expensive to tour bands overseas. So we don’t really dream big. We don’t see ourselves as being massive around the world, certainly not in my circles anyway. But I do remember early on with Courtney’s first and second EP – which I put together and released as one overseas – I could see people were interested. I noticed this instant connection she had with people. I got a sense early on that big things would happen for her. And of course, you start to question your own worth as an artist – Is that what success looks like? All those questions got thrown in my face. Thankfully, I have life experiences and the support to go through it all and not ruin my relationship. Rather than run away, I just did the work and it lifted and went away. That’s been three or four years ago now, and I couldn’t be happier. And I am so proud of her success. I just want the best for her. If anyone has success in the arts, you just have to let them go ... go for it, because it’s such a rare thing.
AXS: Now you’re touring with Kurt Vile and Courtney, is it true that Courtney and you fell in love to a Kurt Vile record?
JC: We did! I had forgotten that. Smoke Ring For My Halo was a huge record for me. We should take him out for dinner to thank him.
Tickets for select shows on this current tour, including a stop at Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 15 and The Showbox in Seattle on Oct. 22, are on sale now and can be purchased by clicking here.